The amalgamation debate reminds me of the famous Sherlock Holmes story. The eccentric pipe smoking Pom detective tells Dr Watson about the dog barking during the night. “But the dog didn’t bark in the night,” replies the simple Doctor. “That,” says the Great Detector, “is the extraordinary factor.”
Amalgamation, or shared services, is the debate that no one is having, because it is in no one’s interest except that of the ratepayers and citizens. And their voice – which should be represented by the press, if no one else – is stifled, because the media relies very heavily on government and local body advertising for their revenues. No one, least of all the press barons, are sharpening up the cutlery set to dismember the golden goose.
At a national level, there is a similar process, but it concerns the quality of government spending. In my time as a local body representative, I have seen first hand the wastage, inefficiency and duplication that has cost us millions and millions of dollars. But any call to reduce government expenditure is greeted with howls of protest. There are few calls to make expenditure more effective.
A good example is the saga of the Hawke’s Bay DHB, which was sacked a year or so ago for taking a stand against financial mismanagement. The Board, after a hard fight, was proved to be in the right and reinstated. But the guilty were never brought to account and the perpetrators were let off scot free. They were never called to account and the dishonest politicians who protected them are still head down in the trough.
But how many other rorts and rip-offs and straight thefts lie undiscovered? How much skimming and scamming is going on in all the other DHBs and government agencies around this fair land of Aotoeroa. We don’t know. The Office of the Auditor-General checks processes and policies and makes sure the numbered vouchers are in order. They don’t really go looking for dishonest practices. There is a fine line between proper and necessary spending and a pet project pushed by an interest group with mates who stand to benefit. But that debate is never heard in public.
I am convinced, after fourteen years at district council and regional council level that Hawke’s Bay would be better off by millions of dollars a year and would be run much more efficiently as a single entity. The one proviso is that we would need a functioning independent press to scrutinise the larger body to stop it becoming a bigger monster than its component parts. And we would need an audit department that does more than pull out files and make sure they conform to government policy guidelines.
The issue is proven by the councils’ collective budgets for the investigation into shared services and the timelines built into annual plans. They are miniscule or non-existent. I think we plan to send $25,000 in three years time to think about amalgamation. In this case, words speak louder than action.
So what should be done? Begin by appointing one manager for all five of the roading departments in Hawke’s Bay. Then bolt the departments together. Follow that up by doing the same for water supplies, libraries, sewage systems, parks and reserves, rates collection, dog control and finance.
Set up a single planning entity for the region and one computer network for the whole province. This kind of consolidation is already happening with Civil Defence, which is run out of Napier by a single committee representing the whole region. And surprise, surprise … it works perfectly.
Finally ,when all the systems are ticking along nicely, assuming they haven’t been sabotaged by vested interests, the citizens might look about them and realise that, yes, life is not so bad with just the one council, one administration, and one set of rules for all.
Time for a few sleeping dogs to wake up and start barking.